WASHINGTON -- The very sharp and largely negative reaction to Newt Gingrich's first days on the presidential campaign trail say as much about the requirements of modern campaigning as they do about the former House speaker's politics.
Gingrich, to be sure, has hardly made life easy for himself. His critique of House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan's Medicare voucher plan was bound to irritate the conservative base, which is already convinced that the Wisconsin Republican's proposal wasn't getting a fair shake. His call for new, targeted spending measures to encourage economic savings and growth made for a screeching contrast with the party's austerity mindset.
By Tuesday, damage had clearly been done. A Wall Street Journal editorial declared -– after an interview with the Georgia Republican, no less -- that "Mr. Gingrich speaks loudly but shrinks from hard choices." An Iowa Republican voter, while literally refusing to stop holding Gingrich's hand, called him "an embarrassment to our party." Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.), apparently unprompted, called up CNN to admonish the former speaker for cutting Ryan "off at the knees."
The irony is that Gingrich's position on the Ryan plan really hasn't changed at all. On April 22, he put up a Facebook post in which he said he preferred proposals offered by former Democratic Congressional Budget Office director Alice Rivlin and former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), which would make Medicare vouchers voluntary.
What has changed is the position Gingrich occupies: an aspiring White House occupant, as opposed to simply a higher-profile member of the commentariat.
Presidential campaigns do indeed come with a brighter spotlight. A candidate's every utterance is pored over for political significance during the a nearly two-year process. In that respect, Gingrich's lengthy record was always going to present problems.
"This is what it is," said Craig Shirley, a longtime Republican operative who has worked with Gingrich and is in the process of writing an authorized biography of the former speaker. "For his entire political life, he's pushed and prodded and provoked people into at least thinking about things. Some in the conservative movement -- if not the Republican Party -- welcome scholarly discussion after the intellectual desert of the first decade of the 21st century."
As Gingrich's current stumbles underscore -- and as dozens of campaign operatives will attest -- it is the first 72-hour window after a candidate enters the race that is increasingly its most critical.
"There is that old shampoo commercial where they say you never have a second chance to make a first impression. That is particularly true of a campaign roll out or that immediate period when you are defining yourself on issues," said Doug Heye who, as communications director for the Michael Steele-run Republican National Committee understood the perils of a political narrative going wildly off-track.
Heye was at his RNC post when then-candidate Rand Paul (R-Ky.) launched his general election campaign for Senate and declined to say whether he would have supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Paul survived that interview. But he was left to wage a much closer-than-expected race.
A more illustrative example of the crucial early campaign window may be the 2004 Democratic presidential primary, when retired general Wesley Clark tripped over a fairly mundane question as to whether he would have voted for the Iraq War Resolution: "He was supposed to be the savior and the first question he got asked on his fly around was on Iraq. He said, 'I don't know,' " recalled one Democratic strategist. "It was a disaster."
The stakes for candidates have only grown since then, with modern media playing an exacerbating role. As Heye notes, there is nothing that brings the press as much enjoyment as a widely publicized, political flame-out.
"It used to be a death by a thousand cuts; now it is death by a million clicks," he said.
Gingrich of all people should know this. When he first announced that he was exploring a presidential bid, his operation was beset by similarly critical stories -- on everything from the shortcomings of his website to his evolving positions on the crisis in Libya. It is, as Shirley argues, a product of the speaker's bombastic, somewhat frantic, always extemporaneous style.
But it also does not have to be completely debilitating, he added. "Reagan's roll out in 1979 was not the greatest, nor was Clinton's in 1991," said Shirley. "Good candidates eventually work out the kinks and I suspect Gingrich will very shortly do just this, as did Reagan and Clinton."
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